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Article

Kate Cowcher

The Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) was founded in 1969. It began as an intimate week-long gathering of filmmakers and enthusiasts in the capital of what is now Burkina Faso to watch contemporary films made by African filmmakers. At its peak in the 1990s, it attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators, both local and international. Since the 2000s, iterations have been smaller affairs, significantly impacted by both changes of government in Burkina Faso and wider political instability in West Africa, as well as ongoing debates about what films it should be showcasing. Despite such challenges (and with only one exception in the mid-1970s), however, FESPACO has remained a constant on the African continent, faithfully screening films by African and diaspora filmmakers every two years for more than half a century. FESPACO was conceived in the age of decolonization by a group of men and women who are considered to be the pioneers of African cinema, including the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. It was established as the first sub-Saharan showcase of African filmmaking, an emergent and significant field in the era of independence when cinema was prized for its ability to make visible African realities and to (re)constitute national histories eclipsed by colonial rule. The concept of a distinctly “African” cinema was articulated most extensively by filmmaker and scholar Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and referred to films made by Africans, telling African stories, principally for African audiences. For Vieyra, Sembène, and their contemporaries, it was essential to take back control of the art of cinema on the African continent, where it had predominantly been deployed as a colonial tool; FESPACO was conceived as the regular forum for those committed to its development to come together and share their work. Through the course of its development, FESPACO has been confronted with a number of challenges regarding its form and its evolution. Its strong connections with the Burkinabe state have been seen as both a significant factor for its growth and its success, and, particularly in the era of Blaise Compaoré, as a source for concern regarding freedom of expression. Since the turn of the 21st century, questions about where video filmmaking—an industry that has proliferated on the African continent in a manner unprecedented internationally—fits within FESPACO’s definition of cinema have been consistent. The festival has, over the years, been accused of being both outdated and elitist in its commitment to celluloid, but also of straying from its original remit to showcase African stories for African audiences, accusations it has responded to by the creation of new prize categories and requirements for submission. The year 2019 was one of reflection, but many critics felt that after some difficult years the festival was showing signs of rejuvenation. Though it is now one of many film festivals on the continent committed to showcasing African cinema, there remains significant appreciation for the historic status of FESPACO as a preeminent sub-Saharan cultural institution.

Article

James Burns

Moving pictures have a long history in Tanzania. The first cinema shows appeared in the region at the turn of the 20th century. Indian entrepreneurs established tent shows before World War I and built permanent cinemas in the interwar period. Colonial officials feared cinema images would undermine their authority and attempted to censor films and segregate audiences. During and immediately following World War II Tanganyika and Zanzibar experienced a boom in cinema building as the popularity of going to the movies soared among urban Africans. Tanzanian audiences developed cosmopolitan tastes, embracing Bollywood actors, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Lee alike. After independence the new Tanzanian government adopted policies that ultimately encouraged the decline of cinema-going as a public leisure activity. Films have been made in Tanganyika and Zanzibar since the first decade of the 20th century. Under German rule, visitors to Tanganyika made ethnographic and wildlife films. After World War I the new British administration in Tanganyika continued to allow commercial and documentary filmmakers to operate in the territory. In the 1930s the British government considered several initiatives to make educational films for African audiences. During World War II the Colonial Office created a film unit to produce and disseminate educational and propaganda films throughout Africa, including in both Tanganyika and Zanzibar. This work continued up until Tanganyika became independent in 1961. After independence the government of the new nation of Tanzania continued producing didactic movies for its citizens. They also made a handful of feature films for commercial distribution. In the 1990s a new video industry emerged in Dar es Salaam, in part inspired by the importation of inexpensive video films from Nigeria. Dubbed “Bongowood,” this new industry has been extremely prolific, producing hundreds of low-budget videos annually. These Swahili-language videos are consumed avidly within the country, as well as in Swahili-speaking areas of neighboring nations, and throughout the Swahili diaspora.

Article

John C. McCall

Motion picture technology developed at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the formal colonization of Africa was launched at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. While it took a few decades for cinema houses to spread in West Africa, by mid-century the colonial administrations began to use film as a means for conveying colonial culture to African subjects. For the British and French colonials, film was a means to shape public opinion. Both British and French colonial administrations criminalized indigenous filmmaking for fear of the subversive potential of anti-colonial messages—film communicated in one direction only. When West African nations became independent in the late 20th century, these restrictions vanished and Africans began to make films. This process played out differently in Francophone Africa than in Anglophone countries. France cultivated African filmmakers, sponsored training, and funded film projects. Talented and determined filmmakers in Anglophone Africa also struggled to produce celluloid films, but unlike their counterparts in former French colonies, they received little support from abroad. A significant number of excellent celluloid films were produced under this system, but largely in Francophone Africa. Though many of these filmmakers have gained global recognition, most remained virtually unknown in Africa outside the elite spaces of the FESPACO film festival and limited screenings at French embassies. Though West African filmmakers have produced an impressive body of high-quality work, few Africans beyond the intellectual elite know of Africa’s most famous films. This paradox of a continent with renowned filmmakers but no local film culture began to change in the 1990s when aspiring artists in Nigeria and Ghana began to make inexpensive movies using video technology. Early works were edited on VCRs, but as digital video technology advanced, this process of informal video production quickly spread to other regions. The West African video movie industry has grown to become one of the most prominent, diverse, and dynamic expressions of a pan-African popular culture in Africa and throughout the global diaspora.

Article

Films and video dramas can become historical sources in different ways. One of them is the use of the filmic images as a source for learning about the physical environment, the layout and look of cities, buildings, rural landscapes, and other cultural elements. The documentation of urban spaces in movies made in the cities that were frequently used as filming locations, such as Dakar in Senegal or Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, furnish cases for extended treatment. Secondly, feature films can comment on the past as a kind of “history writing,” by offering explanation and perspective on past events, a means of doing what written history does in a different medium. The invention of fictional characters or dialogue and filmic strategies such as condensation do not invalidate the contribution that some movies make to the understanding of historical situations. In the case of African history, films by Ousmane Sembene, Med Hondo, and Raoul Peck are illustrations of how this has been achieved. Finally, movies also bear witness to the time of their production, because as creations of the intellect they reflect the interests, concerns, preoccupations, and possibilities of their time. Studies can focus not only on a movie in itself but also on viewers’ perception of it or on critics’ responses, either at the time of its first release or in subsequent viewings. In contrasting ways, Gaston Kaboré’s pre-colonial era films and Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s depiction of Yaounde working class neighborhoods offer exemplary material for this kind of study. Popular films and video dramas can in turn have an impact on their societies and be used deliberately by their makers to disseminate messages, entering in this way the chain of historical causality. In the 1990s the low budget video dramas first produced in Ghana and Nigeria in analogue recordings on VHS cassettes brought a challenge to the established African cinema that was recognized in the international film festival circuit, by combining amateurish production values and commercial success. This mass cultural phenomenon offers an opportunity to explore the economic and cultural roots of a particular style of visual storytelling, as well as the connections between popular audiences’ thematic preferences in entertainment and their everyday living conditions.